- What is Human? Ursula LeGuin and Science Fiction's Great Theme
When H. G. Wells's time traveller encounters mankind's descendants in 802701 A.D., he has a right to question their humanity. The Eloi, though retaining our basic appearance, are smaller, weaker, feeble-willed beings who have lost nearly all the human intellect that has made us dominant. The Morlocks have similarly lost their intellectual birthright but look even less like us. They do, however, maintain characteristic human activities. They use not just tools but machines and have a manufacturing economy, trading goods for unwilling Eloi flesh.
A reader who asks on the basis of the Time Traveller's observations "are these beings human?" is in a dilemma. The Eloi look more like us than the Morlocks do, but the Morlocks behave more like us. Which is sufficient to define humanness, appearance or behavior? The Time Traveller strikes a scientific compromise: he declares both races new species of genus Homo, their main differences from us being matters of degree rather than kind, and he classifies the Morlocks as "less human and more remote than our cannibal ancestors of three or four thousand years ago" (96).
The narrator, who tells the story of the Time Traveller telling his story, has another view. Accepting the Time Traveller's yarn as true, he looks at the flowers that Weena, an Eloi, had given her protector from [End Page 65] the human past and says they comfort him in the face of a future "still black and blank," that they are evidence that "even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness lived on in the heart of man" (141). Clearly the narrator accepts the Eloi as human on the basis of another human characteristic, tender emotions.
Wells, with his Darwinian views, saw evolution as a process operating in virtually indistinguishable steps to create a new species. At what point in its fictitious future did humanity cease to exist? What tests would we, if we were time travelers, apply to Morlock and Eloi to determine whether they are human? Sensibly, Wells saw that the answers were not simple, and—despite the scientific advances since his time—they still are not. The Time Traveller looks partially to biological and behavioral evidence, though he also finally responds in a more subjective way—what is human somehow touches us as human.
Where these scientific and emotional lines of thought join lies one of science fiction's great themes. Extensively and seriously science fiction explores the question, "how do we define humanity?" This question appears different from that implicit in great works that have defined traditional literature. The Iliad, Shakespeare's plays, and Goethe's Faust posit human beings and explore the dimensions and complexity of their behavior, asking, "as human beings how do these characters behave and what does their behavior mean?" Achilles, though he is descended from gods; Iago and Macbeth, though they behave inhumanly; Faust, though he craves and achieves superhuman power: all remain unquestionably human, and their meaning lies in their being our fellows; they show us that pride, wrath, humility, depravity, and ambition help characterize and define humanity. Science fiction turns the question around, asking, "can this being be included as human despite its nonhuman qualities?"
The greatness of this theme can partially be measured by its immediate importance, just as the greatness of Othello can be partially weighed by asking what Iago tells us about evil. Science and technology conspire to press on us the problem of what "human" means. As East African archeology fills in our ancestors' possible development, molecular biologists establish our genetic kinship to the great apes. Where, along the genetic and evolutionary continua, does humanity begin? This is not just a scientific question. Artificial intelligence research, genetic engineering, life-prolonging machines, the abortion controversy, and the self-styled scientific creationism movement all present immediate practical challenges to our conception of what a human being is. Can we call a human fetus or someone who is alive only in the most fundamental sense a human being?
Science fiction has undertaken the theme of defining humanity with vigor, ingenuity, and depth...